“Who is omitted or disempowered or disadvantaged when the cultural practice was formed? Who didn’t have a voice? Who got the least share of power and the largest share of pain? Tradition without discussion kills moral progress.”Melinda Gates, Moment of Lift
Dissent, the expression of ideas at variance with those officially held, has led to children’s rights, free education, protection for women, human safety, etc. In the U.S., no longer can parents legally sell their children for money or labor; education is free for all children; women are now allowed to vote, attend university, and plan for children with birth control or fertility advancements; slavery is illegal; gay people are now legally allowed to marry, adopt children, and create families. With their voices and ideas and lives, people have created a more equitable environment for human life. However, people still suffer and we have a long way to go. I believe that this “way” will be paved by people who dissent, who demand change, and who present ideas to create that change.
Dissent is a vital aspect of progress but it is not just the voices of those who suffer that create moral and social improvements, it is the powerholders’ ability to listen and the united ability of the majority to re-imagine reality together. We are a nation that greatly benefits from dissenters.
For example, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the capitol as a witness to discrimination against Black people; he was a dissenting voice condemning America’s culture and government. Horribly, some people tried to silence him with violence, but his dissent was allowed by the government he condemned. He is now considered a national hero. When Gloria Steinem launched her campaign for women’s reproductive rights, she, like Martin Luther King, faced abuse and hate, but the government which she tried to change, did not deport her; her dissent was also allowed. Frances Perkins, the woman who, through her dissenting voice, established the five-day workweek, work safety laws, and protection for immigrants, argued against heavy forces of opposition, but her voice was allowed and now every U.S. citizen benefits from her re-imagining the value of human life. Elizabeth Packard, the woman who spent her life exposing the abuse of the mentally ill and writing laws to protect them, started a conversation with lawmakers based on her experiences, and while many people tried to silence her, laws and culture were changed with your words. These pioneers and revolutionaries, along with thousands of others, witnessed the suffering caused by “the status quo” and then created ways to change it.
While freedom of speech has its own tensions and deep difficulties, it is a vital part of growth, peace, and humanity. Discourse and dissent and opposition are at the root of every cultural and structural change toward the relief of suffering. Dissent is often the voice of the people forgotten in the making of tradition. Silencing that dissent halts moral progression. So I ask myself, is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints designed for dissent?
Of course, there have been and continue to be dissenting voices that question, influence, and change the patriarchal church; however, they are excommunicated or ostracized and released from callings – removing their ability to change the structure of the church. Consequently, the members of the church are silent because we understand that to dissent, to question publicly, and to start movements of reformation not sanctioned or controlled by the general authorities, is to lose our roots, our community, and sometimes our jobs and families and theology. Is there room for discussion and dissent in this church?
Churches should be leading the world in moral discussion; however, is there discussion without dissent? Sonia Johnson, like so many women, realized the discrepancies between men and women in the structure of the church but when she voiced her dissent, she was excommunicated. Lynne Kanavel Whitesides was excommunicated in 1993 for speaking about Mother in Heaven; her dissent was silenced. Lavina Fielding Anderson, D. Michael Quinn, Maxine Hanks, Paul Toscano, Avraham Gileadi, were all excommunicated in 1993 for their nuanced Mormon theological views and dissenting voices. Kate Kelly, with the idea to ordain women equally with men, was excommunicated in 2014. Natasha Helfer was recently excommunicated for her dissenting voice about the harm and exclusion in church culture and doctrine to LGBTQ+ people.
These voices are excluded from contributing to a vital conversation about how God presents in this church and to this people. Do we need to agree to listen? What happens to cultures that do not allow opposing and new ideas to enter their tradition-making? I don’t know these particular dissenters personally and I don’t need to agree with their ideas to believe that silencing dissent shuts down conversation and kills moral progress. Even Jesus did not silence his opposition. He listened to their questions and intimately knew the thoughts and desires of those who opposed him. The Pharisees and Sadducees end up on the wrong side of Christian history, but it was actually Jesus who was the dissenter, the outcast, the one who questioned religious practices and reimagined how God interacts with and within the humans on earth. And he was killed for it. Silencing dissent kills moral progress.
What if the church listened to dissenters? What if it welcomed the voices suffering from exclusion? And the voices aching for Mother in Heaven? And the wounded voices of women and gay people? And the nuanced voice inside of so many people with questions? What if it didn’t silence dissent but embraced it into Mormon theology?
“What is the way to use anger to fuel something other than hurt, to direct it away from hatred, vengefulness, self-righteousness, and make it serve creation and compassion?”Ursula K. LeGuin, No Time To Spare
(Photo 1 by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash)
(Photo 2 by Markus Winkler on Unsplash)
I would love to see that world, but I think it’s a non-starter.
The premise of the church is “restoration” aka “purification of truth” to become “Zion”. Right off the bat, “Purity” is valued more then “Loving-Kindness” in terms of the long term plan. The Book of Mormon actually has a lot to say about the tension between “Purity” and “Loving-Kindness”, but the tipping point in the Book of Mormon narratives is “these people became less righteous/less pure, so they are cannon fodder (pre-cannon)”. Even the stories of Alma the Younger and his fellow missionaries are “Out of extreme lovingkindness, we are going to teach the Lamanites what we know and risk our lives so they can become “purified too”.” Yes, Alma and those missionaries adapted and showed that lovingkindness, which lead to integration and purification attempts down the line. To be fair, it is not clear whether the “lovingkindness” was the moralistic “anything goes” or more of a “I love and value you over your impurities” deal in the Book of Mormon.
Also, from a restoration aspect, there is limited female leadership in the Old Testament (so that can’t really be “restored”), the stories in the Old Testament about less/least powerful males rising to power is more of an explicit “act of God” continued narrative (think David) – and even that is muddled because David was a known sinner. Again, not really part of the “restoration” narrative.
Dissent shatters. Dissent caused the War in the Pre-Existence (Satan’s plan and all that). Dissent after Joseph Smith’s death shattered the loose coalition of groups that Joseph had gathered into multiple groups of people that believed in the Book of Mormon (Followers of Brigham Young and followers of the Smith family being the largest groups).
To answer your final question, if the church culture changed its process of focusing on “Purity”, it would be a different organization (in the long-term) and I don’t know that it as an organization would survive.
All interesting points, Amy. Thanks for your response. True, if the church leaders continue to rely on precedence, then we will continue to be stuck in the past, relying on fixed interpretations of theology. However, if we can somehow become the moving, living gospel that lives through and listens to the breathing members, I think it would be an entirely different organization.
Dorothy PItman Hughes, a Black woman, was in lock-step with Gloria Steinem. Best friends they traveled, wrote, spoke, and created the real traction of the womens’ equality movement in the 60’s. Ms. Hughes didn’t get the publicity that was afforded Ms. Steimen, but we can always mention her when we mention Steinem.
Also, the violent threats against MLK, Jr. led to this assassination, and continues in far-right rhetoric against his memory. Church leaders hated him and were decades behind the rest of the country in accepting civil rights. They STILL send pricely lobbyists to fight against equality for women.
I love your vision and hope, Thank you.
Thank you so much for bringing Dorothy Pitman Hughs into the list of revolutionaries. We need to know her name and contribution. Also, I hate to hear this about the church continuation of silencing.
Lavender this is powerful. Thank you.
Thank you, Heather.
“ Churches should be leading the world in moral discussion; however, is there discussion without dissent?” 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻
I do think free speech has tended toward safety for violent hate groups. For example recently in Wadsworth, Ohio, literal Nazis and several other white supremacist groups stood with Christian nationalists to shout slurs at children while doing the sieg heil salute. That sort of speech, against vulnerable groups, leads to freedom for white supremacy to grow unchecked, leading to the death of vulnerable populations, which we’ve seen repeatedly in the US and other countries.
My point is, yes to dissent. And also we have to make sure we prioritize the safety of our most vulnerable or oppressed over the free-speech of violent hate groups.
This is such a vital and tricky part of the conversation of freedom of speech. Megan Phelps-Roper has beautiful insights about this disturbing part of the freedom of speech. Thank you for sharing this perspective.
Really great point about Jesus listening to dissent. And there are so many examples of people asking for something and him responding with love and action—he cared about the issues people came to him with.